The thinker: Inside the mind of prized intellectual Amartya Sen

An intellectual who picks up honorary degrees in his spare time, Amartya Sen believes in reason and human rights. Just don't call him idealistic, says Sholto Byrnes

The Idea of Justice is billed as Amartya Sen's most ambitious book yet. This is quite a claim for a man whose publications on famine are acknowledged as having changed global perceptions on poverty and food production, and whose work on welfare economics significantly contributed to the United Nations' Human Development Index. He has been garlanded with honours, including the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. So celebrated is he as a thinker and academic that, asked what Sen does at weekends, his publisher replied, "he collects honorary degrees".

And not just at weekends, it turns out: when we meet on a Wednesday at Trinity College, Cambridge, where Sen was master from 1998-2004 (the first Asian person to be head of an Oxbridge college), he reveals: "I'm off to Dublin tomorrow, to receive an honorary degree." When Trinity College, Dublin rang to offer him the scroll, he had to explain that he'd just received one from University College, Dublin. A delay in conferring the degree was agreed upon because, as Sen joked, he wasn't used to going to Dublin that often.

After a lunch enlivened by the kind of high- table gossip Anthony Powell would have relished, we repair to his office and I ask him about his "most ambitious" book. "Well, those are my publisher's words," he begins, "although that doesn't mean I disagree. I am, of course, mainly trained as an economist, although I have been writing on philosophy for more than 40 years now. I'm trying to make sense of thinking about justice in a way that's philosophically engaged, but which will also have a reach to the public. It's taking all the very difficult subjects but trying to make them accessible."

He changes tack, musing about the word "ambition" in a way that speaks more to the philosopher than the economist in him. (He is a professor in both disciplines.) "I don't know that ambitiousness is a virtue in a book," he elaborates. "Correctness is. Relevance is, and reach is. My own ambitiousness may be quite important to me, but may not be for the reader." He pauses, chuckling at his audience's imaginary response. "What the hell do I care what this man's ambition is?"

Sen is 75 but his mind has a sharpness that those decades his junior would envy. He does, however, display some old-fashioned donnish unworldliness when it comes to technology. In his car, first the rear and then the front windscreen-wipers spring to life to his surprise and bafflement, and it is some time before he can discover the means of turning them off, while a technician who comes to fix the phone in his office discovers that the reason it is not working is... the power lead is not plugged in. Both of these instances he greets with a humour and lack of irritation consistent with his exquisite manners and infectious cheerfulness.

His book's starting point is that identifying redressable injustice, rather than positing what would be the perfectly just society, is central to the theory of justice itself. How do our intuitive, subjective ideas relate to this, I ask. "It relates well to it. I believe that our first presumptions about justice are not overtly reason-based. We have a sense of injustice much more than we have a sense of justice." He cites 18th-century concerns about slavery and the subjugation of women, and Marx's focus on the dispossessed.

"But after that, we ask why it is unjust. So our thinking about justice takes the form of defending or demolishing our own or others' intuitions, and these are matters of reasoning." He concedes that he has been criticised for underestimating the power of unreason, that simple conviction many have in the rightness of their moral positions which may, from another view, be mere prejudice or localised, inherited tradition. (He famously took issue with Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew over the "Asian Values" argument that liberal democratic ideas were culturally specific to the West.) "But when people say that non-whites are inferior, or that women don't have the skills that men do, or there's a reason why some people are lower caste, born into less able families: for this they have reasons, terrible reasons, and as such they're examinable, discussable, scrutinisable and – thank God – dismissable. My claim is that the moment you begin a dispute you have no option but to engage in reasoning."

Is he then, I ask, an idealist about the power of reason to defeat unreason? "There are some words I try not to use," he replies, "and idealist is one of them. That could mean someone who was hopelessly unrealistic or someone who was so enamoured of his ideas that he would not examine the opposite argument. Do I believe that reason will vanquish unreason? Not always, but it's very important to ask what would reason demand."

Sen's belief is that ideas of justice based on reasoning are universal, and are not just drawn primarily from the Western tradition of liberal democracy. In his book he refers to two Sanskrit words for justice: niti – "organisational propriety and behavioural correctness" and nyaya – "a comprehensive concept of realised justice". It is this latter concept, he says, on which we should focus. And this pragmatic view runs deep within him.

Born in 1933 in the grounds of Santiniketan, the college established by the Bengali poet and fellow Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore, Sen once said: "I seem to have lived all my life in one campus or another." After studying at Calcutta and Trinity College, Cambridge, he was offered his first chair (in economics) at the newly created Jadavpur University in India, aged 22. Returning to Trinity as a prize fellow, he broadened his studies to include philosophy, and has since held positions at Oxford, Harvard, the LSE and Delhi.

But a career in academia hasn't diminished his engagement with the outside world. The influence of Tagore's school, with its emphasis on intellectual curiosity and the wider world, has never left him. "Any kind of interest in examination performance and grades was severely discouraged," he has recalled.

This emphasis on what is practical seems sensible, admirable even, given the usual academic preference for tight arguments and conclusions. But it won't answer the criticism of those who take issue with his definitions of two concepts crucial to his theory of justice: democracy, which in his view is reliant on the presupposition of open societies; and human rights, which he is content to describe as "ethical assertions" rather than hard moral facts.

Isn't there a lot of "loose talk", as he puts it in his book, about democracy and human rights? "There's loose talk everywhere," he readily agrees, immediately adding the caveat that, "If you were to shun loose talk, you'd have very little conversation in the world. But I don't think that just because many statements are not well-defined, that means we should reject them. I think you'd be left with very dry, boring talk, very little use for poetry, and you wouldn't be allowing people the liberty for imaginative discussions, which I think is a huge part of humanity." And, he could have added, for his idea of justice.

My view, as I leave Professor Sen (he urges me to call him to continue our conversation) is that, however much he dislikes the word, he is an idealist: an idealist for democracy, justice and universal human rights that he believes will win through the power of reason. As it happens, I don't agree – but I depart feeling challenged, invigorated and questioning after my encounter with one of the most remarkable thinkers alive today. He is kind enough to imply, amid our disagreement, that that is a good enough start for him.

The extract

The Idea of Justice, By Amartya Sen (Penguin £25)

'... At the heart of the particular problem of a unique impartial resolution of the perfectly just society is the possible sustainability of plural and competing reasons for justice... Let me illustrate the problem with an example in which you have to decide which of three children – Anne, Bob and Carla – should get a flute about which they are quarrelling...'

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent